The downside of a trip to Italy can be an hefty mobile phone bill. That is the price for telling your family how magical is the sunset over the Basilica of San Pietro, or describe to your friends how real pizza tastes, in real time.
Overseas mobile fares are expensive, it is unavoidable. Or is it? Say that you have an international calling plan with AT&T: it charges 99 cents a minute to use your mobile phone in Italy. And if you are not a subscriber of the international plan, the rates go up to $1.29 per minute. But what about your data rates?
Modern phone with 3G capabilities offer a cheaper way to call your friends and relatives: VOIP calls. VOIP stands for voice over IP, a method of voice transmission via internet. If you use Skype, you are already using a VOIP software to place your calls. Using the same technology, you can connect to the internet with your mobile phone and use one of the many VOIP solutions to place an oversea call at discount prices.
If you have a last generation or slightly older mobile phone, you have good chances of being able to use at least one of the various VOIP softwares.
VoIP Choices in Italy
The most famous is of course Skype. The mobile version has almost all the features of the original program. You can use it to call for free (paying the data connection) other Skype users and can buy credit to place calls to landlines or mobile phones.
Fring is less known, but more versatile than Skype. Allows you to place calls, also with video, and to connect to many IM networks, like MSN and Google Talk. Fring's 3G connection is a bit unstable, but under Wi Fi it works great.
Truphone is even less known than Fring, but is available for all the major platforms: iPhone, Nokia, Android and Blackberry. It has no 3G capabilities, but using Wi Fi or your phone own dialing capabilities can connect you to your friend and families as easily and with the same quality of a landline.
Wi-Fi in Italy
When it comes to connecting to the internet with your mobile, Wi-Fi is, of course the better option: the connection is more stable and it may costs less than a data call, or even zero, to use. More and more modern phones come with Wi-Fi support, so hooking on an hotspot is definitely an option.
In Italy it's rare to find an open Wi-Fi hotspot. Italian laws require that everyone that logs on to the internet must be identified, so you will always need an account to log on a Wi-Fi network. There are a few open networks, but they are rare and are chances are that they are open because of an oversight or erroneous configuration by their owners.
Many retail and food outlets are starting to offer free Wi-Fi accounts: you can register for free and then use the network as you please. McDonald's (link to Italian page) is one of the places where you can find free Wi-Fi. You just have to register using the procedure explained in flyers available in the restaurants and after a few minutes, you are online. Other bars and restaurants are following McDonald's example and offer to their customers free accounts for Wi-Fi access.
If you can't find an available Wi-Fi hotspots or your mobile doesn't come with Wi-Fi technology, you will have to place a data call. Italy has one of the major concentration of mobile phone in all the world. Most of the country is covered with 3G or GPRS/EDGE network. The four major carriers are TIM, Vodafone, 3 and Wind. TIM and Vodafone have the most developed networks, reaching almost every corner of Italy. Wind has cheap prices and easy to understand offers, 3 has the best 3G infrastructure but has a clear and strong signal only in the major cities. On arriving in Italy, according to the agreements between your carrier and its Italian partners, you will go on roaming on the network of one of these carriers and you'll be able to use their data infrastructure for your VOIP calls.
Better yet, you can purchase a pay-as-you-go SIM from one of the carriers. These SIMs are already configured to connect to the carrier data network and you will not have to manually configure your phone for internet connection.
Whatever the solution you will use, a VOIP software will allow you to place your calls from Italy to your friends and family for a fraction of the prices you'd pay if calling with your regular voice plan. So think about it!